In a season of graduations and new beginnings—not to mention, mayoral campaigns gathering steam—it is instructive to consider the ripple effects of the school reform agenda that’s emanated over the past decade from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Department of Education at the Tweed Courthouse.
With Bloomberg’s first term came mayoral control of the public schools—which have grown, over his tenure, into a conglomeration of nearly 1700 schools. Publicly funded charter schools, near nil at the mayor’s first inauguration, have boomed, particularly since the state cap on charters was lifted in 2009. His tenure has seen the rise of data-driven accountability (and greater financial freedoms that flow from it), financial rewards for performance (for students, teachers, principals and schools), by-the-numbers school closures, and the long-haul drive to link teacher tenure to job performance, tied to student scores on state standardized tests despite criticisms about flaws in those exams.
The architects of New York’s large-scale education reform, led for nearly a decade by Chancellor Joel I. Klein, tout New York’s role as a reform pioneer. And indeed, many influential school reformers have left Tweed for other locales, to lead state and local education efforts where they carry out policies and reforms that mirror Tweed’s ethos and practices.
In an effort to understand the enduring national impact of Bloomberg, Klein, and now-Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s education reform agenda, City Limits took a look at where Tweed’s alumni have landed.
Across the river and through the woods
A signal reform of Bloomberg-Klein’s early years was the importing of talent from sectors outside of education; a Department of Education loaded with MBAs and lawyers meant that professional educators were outnumbered among the Chancellor’s cabinet. Christopher Cerf had led a chain of charter schools, Edison Schools, prior to working at Tweed. When this legal powerhouse (he edited the law review at Columbia and later clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor) turned Tweed bureaucrat, he championed school choice—a frequent euphemism for charter schools.
As Klein’s Chief Transformation Officer, Cerf was a crucial early voice in DOE’s practice of closing “failing” schools—most often, big, beleaguered high schools in economically depressed neighborhoods—and replacing them with new, small schools designed to support struggling students and often organized, in some measure, around a unifying theme. “Rather than working to change the organization,” Cerf said, “you shut the old organization down and transfer relevant parts to new organizations that you’re building.”
Cerf left the DOE in 2009 to help run the mayor’s second re-election campaign.
He now heads the New Jersey state school system, to which he was appointed by Governor Chris Christie in 2011, and where he is responsible for 2,500 schools and 1.4 million children.
More recently arrived in Jersey are two Tweed Deputy Chancellors, Cami Anderson and Marcia Lyles. Anderson’s reform resume is long and deep: Prior to working for Tweed, Anderson headed New Teachers for New Schools, an education reform group, and served as executive director of Teach for America, the controversial Wendy Kopp brainchild that puts graduates of elite colleges and universities in inner-city classrooms.
Anderson, who Newark mayor Cory Booker profiled in Time magazine as “a modern-day freedom fighter,” headed DOE’s development of non-traditional high school completion programs, including transfer schools and Young Adult Borough Centers, which permit older students to graduate before they turn 21. Anderson left New York for Newark in 2010, when she became that city’s superintendent.
Lyles served as a teacher, principal and district superintendent in New York City before taking on roles as a regional superintendent and then Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning under Klein. She left Tweed in 2009 to head the Christina school district in Delaware. This year, Lyles became Jersey City schools superintendent. Some locals derided her selection as superintendent over popular interim superintendent Franklin Walker—and her inflated salary of (reportedly) $235,000 a year, well above the $175,000 a year her predecessor earned. NAACP leaders in Jersey City called her a Cerf crony: They share many reform goals, and emails uncovered by the Hudson Reporter refer to a “Cerf meeting” involving a Jersey City politician, Steve Fulop, that occurred just before Lyles’ predecessor was ousted by a school board controlled by Fulop allies.
But New Jersey state education department spokeswoman Barbara Morgan, another Tweed alum, having served in DOE’s press office, denies any Lyles-Cerf connection.
NYC ideas in the Nutmeg State
Garth Harries, recruited to DOE in 2003 from the high-level consulting firm McKinsey was, at 31 years old, another lawyer among DOE’s “new educrats,” so dubbed in 2004 by the New York Times. For five years, Harries was Klein’s Chief Executive of Portfolio Development and New Schools—Klein’s point man for school closings, which were presented to often enraged community members as faits accompli until demand and pushback from electeds forced public hearings. (Hearings persist but are largely ineffectual, as the mayor-controlled Panel for Education policy consistently votes to support DOE recommendations.)
An advocate of “choices for students and families,” Harries told the Times, he oversaw “the creation of new school opportunities,” via the large-school closures that dominated Joel Klein’s early leadership and the reconstitution of small high schools, both significantly funded and warmly endorsed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which has since turned its efforts to teacher education and evaluation, when small schools didn’t yield on their hoped-for early promise).
For Harries’ last major act at Tweed, Klein asked Harries to study the city’s provision of special education despite having had no personal experience, as a student, teacher, or policy-maker in the universe of special education, which includes some 165,000 city students. Harries conducted a long “listening tour” around the city in 2008 and 2009, drawing fire for his inexperience but eventually gaining the measured trust of many advocates. His resignation from Tweed in early 2009 to become the assistant superintendent of the New Haven school system came as a blow to the confidences he had assiduously cultivated: “The special education community has invested a lot of time in bringing Garth up to speed,” Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, a non-profit group that supports challenged students in the city’s schools and courts, said at the time. “I hope that will not be lost.” Sweet’s worries were realized when Harries released his recommendations—directing sweeping reforms in how schools provide special education services citywide and slated for citywide implementation this September—within days of his exit for New Haven, meaning he would not be around to monitor or adjust their implementation.
A self-described “systems guy,” Harries, like Bloomberg, puts great weight in data and metrics, especially as regard school and teacher performance. In Connecticut, according to a 2009 profile, he’s negotiated a two-tier teachers’ contract with “a host of different metrics,” limiting tenure and linking teacher pay to classroom performance. Dubbed the “school reform czar” by the New Haven papers, Harries’ reforms to date include U.S. Department of Education and DOE-derivative ‘turnaround schools,’ with wholesale changes of leadership and faculty and increasingly data-informed instruction, evaluation and analysis. To date, reviews are mixed—more students appear to be “on track” for graduation, but no schools targeted for reform have yet shown significant, across-the-board improvement—and neither has the system as a whole.
From Chambers Street to Cajun Country
John White, who began his education career with Teach for America, inherited Garth Harries’ job when Harries left, becoming the media-shy face of DOE school closings. Noted for his intellect and ideological consistency in New York, White strove to keep a low profile. But a day before publishing magnate Cathie Black was ousted as Chancellor in April 2011, White joined a small exodus of high-level Tweed executives. He went to New Orleans, where a school-reform juggernaut replaced traditional public schools with charters.
New Orleans schools had long struggled; Hurricane Katrina’s floods became an opportunity for urban-laboratory education reform on a scale unparalleled anywhere in the U.S.
Three days into his superintendency, an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune floated White’s name for state education superintendent. Within the month, with the strong support of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Gov. Bobby Jindal tapped White to lead the state education department, where the then-35-year-old White would earn over $280,000 a year, including $60,000 in housing allowances and over $20,000 for an official car. White continues his strong advocacy of statistics-based accountability and other New-York-based reforms: grading public schools, supporting charter school growth, and linking teacher job security to performance and not tenure. Most recently, the legislature approved a controversial voucher program that permits 10,000 students in failing schools (as defined by state test scores) to receive public-money “scholarships” to attend private and parochial schools, effectively “funneling state funds to private schools,” according to local school boards and teachers groups.
Critics assert that the voucher program masks aggressive cost-cutting: Each student ‘scholarship’ carries $5,300 in state money—considerably less than the $8,500 per child Louisiana spends in its public schools.
The voucher issue grows more complicated when curriculum enters the mix—public money will essentially support Bible-based curricula in parochial schools, including lessons that the earth is only 6,000 years old. It gets murkier still in the context of a long chain of emails between White and staffers for Jindal, ahead of the voucher program’s official approval, in which White expresses his desire to “muddy up the narrative” and “let some air out of the room” by creating a news story about the approval process for participating schools to counter a news investigation about a school that had been okayed for vouchers despite conducting most of its instruction by DVD.
Good numbers, “bad judgment” in Baltimore
The Chief Executive Officer of the Baltimore City Schools, Andres Alonso, is also a Tweed alum, having served there as Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning. Unlike many of his Tweed colleagues, Alonso taught school for more than a decade, working with emotionally challenged teens and English language learners in Newark, NJ, from 1987 to 1998.
Born in Cuba, Alonso immigrated to the U.S. at age 12—personifying the education-is-access ethos in his progress through Columbia and Harvard, where he earned a law degree and a master’s and doctorate in education. When Alonso came to Baltimore in 2007, fewer than half of city students were graduating from high school, and the outcomes for students of color were worse still. Six superintendents had come and gone in six years. “Baltimore is a test case for what’s possible,” Alonso said then. “There were incredible opportunities, because the troubles were so big.”
Borrowing some policies from Tweed but notably rejecting others, Alonso has’ achieved real change in Baltimore’s schools, improving academic outcomes, promoting autonomy for principals, reorganizing systems and laying off a third of the education department office staff. He also replaced three of every four principals citywide, and in 2010, won a contract that rewards teachers for performance——consonant with the drive among Tweed leaders to link tenure to performance in the city’s schools. But unlike his Gotham counterparts, who steadily increased the presence of NYPD school safety officers in schools, Alonso championed a less punitive school culture. Suspensions decreased from 26,000 a year to less than 10,000, because extra staff were put in place to resolve conflicts and keep students in school. Baltimore’s dropout rate has fallen by more than half.
Charters have flourished here as well—nearly three dozen of the city’s 205 schools are charters, up from around 20 when Alonso took office. Meanwhile, Alonso’s leadership has taken hits: Even as he pleaded with the state to restore cut funding (in addition to $2.8 billion needed for crumbling buildings and broken toilets), his education department’s information technology office, responsible for accountability and performance metrics citywide, invested $500,000 in public money on office renovations, including flat-screen televisions, interactive white boards, and a glass-walled conference room. Alonso later admitted “bad judgment.” Additionally, the hasty public dismissal of two Baltimore principals for allegations of cheating on state exams underscored the pressure on schools to perform on state tests.
Taking on the City of Broad Shoulders
A thousand miles west, Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard came to Chicago via Rochester and the NYC DOE. In New York, Brizard was, like Alonso and Lyles, unique in the upper echelons for being a classroom veteran: As a teacher and principal, he came to Tweed with over two decades experience, and became a regional superintendent—a newly-created position in one of Klein’s systems-busting reorganizations—and, eventually, a senior executive responsible for “policy and sustainability.”
From New York, Brizard was recruited to head the Rochester schools, one of New York’s Big Five urban districts. Brizard was charged with improving academic outcomes, raising the graduation rate, and boosting both academic rigor and accountability. Brizard’s tenure was widely criticized; his drive to lay off hundreds of teachers and close schools led to a vote of no-confidence by the Rochester teachers union only a month after he had signed a three-year, $705,000 contract with the school board. Teachers, parents and community leaders said Brizard did not communicate about school closings prior to making decisions; Rochester teachers’ union head Adam Urbanski said, “Brizard’s definition of shared decision-making was to make a decision and then share it.”
Two months after the humiliating non-confidence vote, Brizard accepted an offer from newly elected mayor Rahm Emanuel to become CEO of Chicago’s public schools—the job Arne Duncan held before moving to Washington. Brizard’s ambitious five-year plan for Chicago focuses on closing schools, opening charters, firing poor teachers and rewarding talented teachers with merit pay—tropes that are deeply familiar at Tweed.
It’s important to note that their time at Tweed is not the only resume line that links many of the education officials exported from Chambers Street to school systems elsewhere. The prestigious leadership training programs of the Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles-based organization noted for its support of charter schools, also figures into all their bios.
Lyles, Cerf, White, Harries and Brizard all completed a prestigious school leadership training program at Broad. Alonso is not a Broad trainee, but Broad has recognized his expertise as a contributor to at least one Broad policy report, Smart Options, published in 2009 to help districts and states spend US Dept. of Education recovery dollars.
When questions about Lyles’ connections to Cerf were raised after her appointment in Jersey City, the shared Broad background was also cited. Lyles denied its significance. “Broad is not a cult,” she said.
Broad’s reform agenda continues to gather force, according to a late-August story published in the Washington Post, which quotes a memo to Cerf describing Broad’s plan to advance and accelerate its efforts toward “disruptive” and “transformational” urban-education reform, and its goal to create a core group of Broad graduates (called Chiefs for Change) to influence the political agenda, among other objectives.
An ‘education mayor’s’ legacy
Klein, the longest-serving Chancellor in memory, left the DOE in late 2010, to take up a position with Rupert Murdoch, heading NewsCorp’s e-learning business, where he earns a corporate titan’s multimillion-dollar salary: $5 million in salary and benefits that dwarf the six-figure paycheck Klein drew as Chancellor. Early in his tenure at News Corp., Klein became consigliere to Murdoch, drawing on his long-established antitrust law expertise to guide the mogul during U.S. and U.K. hearings that brought down at least one Murdoch paper over allegations of phone hacking.
(Klein’s not the only high-profile DOE staffer who’s moved uptown to NewsCorp. Former DOE spokesperson Natalie Ravitz now works as Rupert Murdoch’s Chief of Staff. )
Bloomberg’s avowed goal to be New York’s education mayor, repeated at all three inaugurations, has come to fruition as the leaders who honed their education-reform chops under Klein’s aegis, have left New York and begun to work across the United States. With common-ground reform agendas that (not coincidentally) echo reforms advanced by the U.S. DOE, Tweed alums find fertile soil for their ongoing work in urban education reform.